St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the angels are superior intelligences who serve God as messengers to this world. How we respond to the interactions of angels is part of our response to God’s interaction with the world in Christ.
The reactions to the angels of Advent reveal the range of emotions we all face in the wonder and danger of God’s presence. The priest Zechariah is doubtful at the news from the angel Gabriel that his aged wife, Elizabeth, will bear a son. Because of his doubt he was struck dumb until the boy’s birth. The Blessed Virgin Mary, on the other hand, responds to her message from Gabriel with childlike wonder, curiosity and instant and full obedience. Pragmatic St. Joseph responds to his angelic messenger in a combination of the two.
Early church tradition suggests Matthew knew Joseph and had firsthand knowledge of the events of Christ’s birth. Matthew presents St. Joseph as “a just man,” and his decision to quietly divorce the unexpectedly pregnant Mary comes across as both prudent and kind. Considering that a pregnancy outside marriage would have involved not only public disgrace but possible punishment by stoning, Joseph’s quiet deliberation shows his pragmatism and sensible precautions for Mary’s safety. Joseph also comes across as a mature and respectable man. If the young girl he had taken into his care was pregnant, not only would she be disgraced, but he would be suspected as the irresponsible father. No wonder he wanted to quietly wash his hands of the whole affair!
The message of an angel in a dream changed all that. If Joseph was the pragmatic and cautious man that the story suggests, we would expect him to also be doubtful of the angel’s message the way Zechariah was. To obey the angel would be to risk everything — his reputation, his business and his relationships. While Joseph shares Zechariah’s natural caution, he also shares with Mary the faith and courage to respond in obedience to the angelic message no matter what the cost.
The clash between these two responses — natural doubt and questioning about the supernatural — and childlike acceptance and obedience is something every believer must face if they are to take their faith seriously.
To be a Christian is to believe the astounding claim that Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, is also the Son of God. To hold to the historic faith is to hold to the truth that Jesus of Nazareth is the eternal Word from the Father in human flesh. It is natural to respond to these stupendous claims with instinctive doubt like Zechariah, and only by God’s gift of grace can we move on, as Joseph did, to respond with the childlike obedience and faith of the Blessed Virgin.
We also learn from the third Advent messenger that the angels communicate with us in a multiplicity of ways. They may appear in human form. They may communicate through inner locutions or they may be in touch with us through our dream life. It is possible that Joseph was so pragmatic and down to earth that he wouldn’t have believed in a visual appearance of an angel, and so the angel contacted him through his mental activity of dreaming.
As we draw closer to the Feast of Christ’s nativity, the message of the Advent angels summon us closer. It is natural to respond to the astounding message of Christmas with wonder, disbelief and fear, but we are called from within the celebrations to step out in faith like Joseph, who was willing to risk all to respond to God’s call in obedience and steadfast love.